i wrote a really long facebook comment on trigger warnings and wanted to put it here
The questions you are asking are hard questions that need to be answered, especially who deserves to avoid their trigger and how can trigger warnings be used to cover over larger issues of mental health broadly. One question I have that purely comes from my exposure online and that may be totally wrong is something like, How do trigger warnings come from a particularly white, privileged online discourse? This is a real problem in disability activism in general—access to treatment and attempts to create accessibility are always always marked by privilege. But I don’t really see that kind of critique coming from many of the writers who are so strongly opposed to trigger warnings. Instead it seems to boil down to questions like “Should people with mental illness be in school?” or “How are triggered people behaving badly?”
Who trigger warnings potentially mark in a classroom space is a practical problem, too. I think about that when trying to grapple with names and pronouns in classroom spaces. Even though I am trans and deeply value students’ self-identification, I don’t ask for preferred gender pronouns when we’re doing introductions because I feel like they mark and call attention to the individual trans people in my classes. I try to get at pronouns in different ways. But it’s still not a good thing to avoid it all together…long story short I think there are a lot of similarities.
I think part of the issue is that there is a difference between a writer marking his or her text and a reader marking another person’s text. In online spaces, writers mark their own texts with trigger warnings as a heads up to their long-term readers because they know that their audience has particular needs. Often writing marked with a trigger warning is accordingly revealing, graphic, and personal. I find they don’t cover over difficult discourse and instead offer people ways to engage with it on their own terms.
In the weirdly unspecific “college classroom” that has been posited in many of these articles online, trigger warnings couldn’t follow this pattern because the original writer is generally not present to mark their content for a particular audience (except in the writing classroom).
I prefer to think of trigger warnings as a “heads up” rather than a “you can avoid this reading/film.” I think a lot of teachers are already practicing a kind of “trigger warning” when they give their students notice that the book they are reading is about suicide or rape. Knowing about that going in, for me at least, is a big help. I also think they are not meant to keep you from teaching certain kinds of content—in fact they could function to help faciliate discussion around having more intense, emotionally challenging content in the classroom
Talking about it with others has really made me think about the role of reading in the classroom and how much control we have over students doing the reading, too…but I’m still wrapping my head around it.
To take a stab at it: part of the underlying issue links up with the classic divide between the role of writing and reading in the classroom. Students want to read in college classrooms in the way that they write online. Do we as English teachers want to approach that as a problem or do we want to work with it, understand it, and see where it goes?